Few of the past century’s developments rival the growth of big government in America. Once upon a time Americans lived freely, barely aware of the federal government, for there were not income taxes, no Social Security payments, few if any regulations requiring permits and payments. As Robert Higgs shows, however, in Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, c. 1987), such “days, alas are long gone. Now, in virtually every dimension, our lives revolve within rigid limits circumscribed by governmental authorities; we are constrained continually and all sides by Big Government” (p. ix). Government may now, Warren Nutter said, “‘take and give whatever, whenever, and wherever it wishes’” (p. 4). Bureaucrats, “rather than private citizens effectively decide how resources will be allocated, employed and enjoyed” (p. 28).
This remarkable growth of government has generally been supported by the public, especially since it has occurred during times of crisis. Thus Rahm Emmanuel’s oft-cited remark, as the Obama Administration took control in 2009, declaring they could not let a crisis go to waste, reflects historical reality Given a sense of national emergency, individuals may easily ignore their own self-interest in order to support collective action (through taxation or regulation) portrayed as necessary for national security or economic justice. During the 20th century, three grand crises augmented government growth—the two world wars and the Great Depression. Once the crises passed, however, the government always retained its hastily-crafted, crisis-forged powers. “As William Graham Sumner observed, ‘it is not possible to experiment with a society and just drop the experiment whenever we choose. The experiment enters into the life of a society and never can be got out again’” (p. 58).
To argue his thesis, Higgs first examines the “crisis under the Old Regime, 1893-1896,” when serious proposals to expand the federal government were debated and rejected. The wrenching depression of the ‘90s ignited populist protests across the land, particularly in the South and West. Giving voice to this discontent, William Jennings Bryan gained the Democrat Party’s presidential nomination in 1896 and promised to fundamentally change the American way in accord with the 1892 People’s Party platform which, “besides proposing unlimited coinage of silver and the graduated taxation of incomes, and called for the nationalization of the railroads, telegraph, and telephones and declared support for the organization and objectives of labor unions. Americans of all political persuasions sensed that the future of the political economy lay in the balance. ‘The election,’ said newspaperman William Allen White, ‘will sustain Americanism or it will plant Socialism’” (p. 78).
What White termed “Americanism” was widely supported by the American people at that time. To “James Bryce, perhaps the most perspicacious foreign observer of American society in the late nineteenth century,” the people believed “that certain rights of the individual, such as the ‘right to the enjoyment of what he has earned . . . are primordial and sacred.’ Moreover, all governmental authorities ‘ought to be strictly limited’ and ‘the less of government the better. . . . The functions of government must be kept at their minimum’” (p. 83). Rather than call for revolutionary changes to rectify economic inequities, Bryce continued, “‘the honesty and common sense of the citizens generally’” led them to insist “‘that the interests of all classes are substantially the same, and that justice is the highest of those interests. Equality, open competition, a fair field to every body, ever stimulus to industry, and every security for its fruits, these they hold to be the self-evident principles of national prosperity’” (p. 83).
Standing for these self-evident principles and resisting the Populist program was the Democrat elected in 1892, President Grover Cleveland, as well as the Supreme Court. Philosophically opposed to the radicalism of men such as Bryan, Cleveland determined “to save the gold standard, threatened by silverite inflationists; to preserve an orderly and free labor market, jeopardized by unionist, rioters, and proponents of governmental work relief for the unemployed” (p. 78). During his first term (1885-89) Cleveland had vetoed a bill calling for sending $10,000 to Texas farmers suffering from a drought. That they were suffering was manifestly evident, but “he could ‘find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution.’ Further, ‘A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of [the government’s] power and duty should be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people’” (p. 84).
Supporting oneself—that was the American way in the 18th century. Thus the Supreme Court rejected (as unconstitutional) legislative efforts to impose a federal income tax. Arguing for it, attorney James C. Carter “freely admitted that it was class legislation,” taking from a few rich folks to supply the needs of the less fortunate. In response, the opposing attorney, Joseph H. Choate declared: “‘there are private rights of property here to be protected. . . . The act of Congress which we are impugning before you is communistic in its purposes and tendencies, and is defended her upon principles as communistic, socialistic—what shall I call them—populistic as ever have been addressed to any political assembly in the world’” (p. 100). Justice Field, appointed to the Court in 1863, concurred with Choate, predicting “that ‘[t]the present assault upon capital is but the beginning. It will be but the stepping-stone to others, larger and more sweeping, till our political contests will become a war of the poor against the rich; a war constantly growing in intensity and bitterness’” (p. 102).
What Justice Field feared transformed within two decades, as the Progressive Movement and World War I substantially altered America’s political and economic system. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson led the way, frequently bolstered by muckraking journalistic pronouncements and reflecting a profound change in political theory, moving in a socialistic direction. Inculcating socialism, were “‘literary socialists such as William Dean Howells and Upton Sinclair,’” and economists including Henry Demarest Lloyd and Richard T. Ely. “‘Socialism supplied the critique, if not the technique for much Progressive reform; and though not always recognized, its effect was felt in all social sciences’” (p. 116).
Progressivism’s impact upon America, however, was paltry when compared with the “war socialism” imposed upon the nation during WWI. By the war’s end, “the government had taken over the ocean shipping, railroad, telephone, and telegraph industries; commandeered hundreds of manufacturing plants; entered into massive economic enterprises on its own account in such varied departments as shipbuilding, wheat trading, and building construction; undertaken to lend huge sums to businesses directly or indirectly and to regulate the private issuance of securities; established official priorities for the use of transportation facilities, food, fuel, and many raw materials; fixed the prices of dozens of important commodities; intervened in hundreds of labor disputes; and conscripted millions of men for service in the armed forces” (p. 123). Amidst it all, President Woodrow Wilson assumed an alarmingly dictatorial stance.
Though many of the measures adopted during WWI were scaled back during the 1920s, an ideological shift had occurred, facilitating the enormous expansion of Big Government in the 1930s. The Great Depression, to New Dealers, “John Garraty has written, ‘justified the casting aside of precedent, the nationalistic mobilization of society, and the removal of traditional restraints on the power of the state, as in war, and it required personal leadership more forceful than that necessary in normal times’” (p. 170). The political rhetoric of class conflict was revealing: “‘“Competition” became “economic cannibalism,” and “rugged individualists” became “industrial pirates.” Conservative industrialists, veteran antitrusters, and classical economists were all lumped together and branded “social Neanderthalers,” “Old Dealers,” and “corporals of disaster”’” (p. 179).
Rather than serving as a guardian of individual rights, the Constitution was construed by New Dealers and ultimately rationalized by the Supreme Court as an enabler of federal power. Virtually anything desirable was deemed doable, leading many traditionalists to consider the Constitution shredded beyond recognition. The New Deal’s radical innovations transformed the nation, putting the federal government in control of significant sectors of public life. Beyond all the regulations and subsidies, social security and labor law, the New Deal’s “most important legacy,” Higgs insists, “is a certain system of belief, the now-dominant ideology” that justifies getting what one wants at the expense of others. “To take—indirectly if not directly—other people’s property for one’s own benefit is now considered morally impeccable, providing that the taking is effected through the medium of government” (p. 195).
The unrestrained government established by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal was further expanded during WWII—years which “witnessed the creation of an awesome garrison economy” (p. 196). A plethora of federal bureaucracies controlled prices and dictated policies. “Whether one calls the prevailing political economy ‘war socialism,’ ‘war fascism,’ or something else is largely a matter of linguistic taste, but capitalism it definitely was not” (p. 211). Given the hand-in-glove relationship between government and industry (as well as government and labor), Higgs says, “vast profits and losses were at stake, and governmental officials had their hands on the levers that controlled how the mechanism would operate. The politicians, observed Fiorello La Guardia (who knew something about politicians), ‘are drooling at the mouth and smacking their jowls in anticipation of the pickings once they get their slimy claws into the price administration’” (p. 209).
Following WWII the powerful centralized government retained its war-time powers. The laissez faire, free-market economy and limited government featured by the nation’s founding documents had lasted only into the 1920s. As the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter noted, in the title of a talk delivered just nine days before he died in 1949, the U.S. had been taking a “March into Socialism” (p. 239), thus risking the tyranny generally associated with such an economy. Big Government cannot but become a dictatorial Leviathan. And it has materialized, in crisis-induced spurts, Higgs persuasively argues under the auspices of progressivism and liberalism.
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Whereas Higgs, an economist, examines historical epochs that illustrate the expansive Leviathan, Kenneth Minogue seeks to explain the same phenomenon from a more philosophical perspective, wondering if “the moral life can survive democracy” in The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life (New York: Encounter Books, c. 2010). The democracy envisioned in the 19th century hardly resembles what now flourishes throughout the Western world; though it once meant “a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them” (p. 2), illicitly “telling us how to live” (p. 3). This reflects a profound ethical shift, substituting an imposed “politico-moral” agenda for the individually free and virtuous standard evident in Aristotle and Aquinas.
As it has evolved, Minogue thinks, modern democracy “leads people increasingly to take up public positions on the private affairs of others. Wherever people discover that money is being spent, either privately or by public officials, they commonly develop opinions on how it ought to be spent. In a state increasingly managed right down to small details of conduct, each person thus becomes his own fantasy despot, disposing of others and their resources as he or she thinks desirable” (p. 214). As Aristotle expressly warned, given the opportunity “the property-less will exploit those with property” (p. 237). While once promoting liberty, today’s democracies righteously curtail any freedoms deemed injurious to either public or private well-being. Independent individualists have been replaced by servile dependents. “Voting yourself rich,” as P.J. O’Rourke quipped, sure beats working and saving! And this is no minor matter, for: “We should never doubt that nationalizing the moral life is the first step toward totalitarianism” (p. 3).
Whereas 19th century democrats (e.g. Thomas Jefferson) celebrated individualism, their 21st century heirs (e.g. Lyndon Johnson) insist governments feed and house, comfort and care for everyone needing help. Individuals once considered themselves duty-bound (to their country, spouse, community), but they now think their government obligated to them—thus food stamps, social security, health care, etc. The right to be free from government control has morphed into the right to demand goods and services from the government. Schools provide free lunches, whether or not students learn to read and write. Churches once preaching personal salvation now promote “social justice.” Replacing the right to pursue happiness one one’s own us the right to demand happiness at the breast of the nanny state. Living virtuously has been replaced by efforts “to legislate the kind of society we want, or think we want” (p. 123). Ironically, Minogue argues, the intellectual and political elites that celebrate the wisdom and maturity of “the people” treat them as incompetent children who need constant supervision and subsidies. They flatter the masses when giving commencement speeches but enact policies predicated upon the assumption that environment (poverty, discrimination) dictates behavior.
Pervading it all is the ethical utilitarianism birthed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and today evident in philosophers such as Richard Rorty and Princeton’s notorious Peter Singer. Morality was reduced to sentiment by 18th century skeptics such as David Hume; so a subjective, “sentimental moralism” has replaced the sturdy objective “natural law” principles of Christian ethicists such as Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Reid. The “greatest good for the greatest number” has become the democratic imperative. Outcomes—in schools and churches and federal agencies—become the singular criteria whereby we distinguish good from evil. Whether taxing the rich or endorsing affirmative action, the question is not whether it is just but whether it promotes economic equality or compassionate feelings. “Redistributionist taxation,” for instance, “is often defended as socially just, and therefore as being a moral as well as a civic obligation, but no one who observes the incompetence of governments in first raising large sums by taxation and then spending so much of it wastefully is likely to be impressed by this invocation of morality” (p. 64).
Discrimination of virtually any sort violates the modern democratic creed—the “religion of equality” that has become our regnant “piety” (p. 83). Though ignoring the evident reality of human nature by trying to mandate equality (racial, sexual, economic) is the equivalent of “making water run up hill” (p. 81), radicals routinely embark upon utopian endeavors designed to do so. Even attitudes and “feelings” must be legislatively normalized—thus university speech codes and “hate crime” legislation! “Liberation” movements inevitably promote the politico-moral agenda subtly “denying the basic reality on which modern Western Civilization is based” (p. 317).
In brief, Minogue defines the servile mind “as the abdication of moral autonomy and independent agency in favor of either some unreflective collective allegiance or agency in favor either of some unreflective collective allegiance or some inevitably partial and personal impulse for illicit satisfaction” (p. 192). Increased attention to “victims” (necessarily slaves rather than free men) and their “rights” has transformed modern democracies. We have, he laments, sold our birthright (with Esau of old) for a mess of porridge!
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